Kay Barnes of Missouri

WASHINGTON (WOMENSENEWS)–Nominations of female congressional candidates may have fallen off this year, but the field promises to produce the best showing since 1992, when women nearly doubled their ranks in the House and Senate.

"This is the most positive I’ve ever felt about these races," said Gilda Morales, a researcher at the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, a leading think tank for women and elections. "Although we don’t have as many women candidates as we did in prior years, the women that are running are really seasoned campaigners."

At the same time, Hillary Clinton’s groundbreaking race for her party’s presidential nomination and the appointment of Sarah Palin on the GOP vice presidential ballot may also make it easier for voters to vote for a woman. "There isn’t a stigma or a newness for women running for office," Morales said. "People see this is normal. These are the way things should be."

This year Morales predicts women–who currently hold 87 of the 535 seats in Congress, or about 16 percent–could pick up as many as 13 seats on Election Day.

Women in Government

Worldwide, 18 percent of national legislative seats are held by women, according to the Geneva-based Inter Parliamentary Union. It ranks the United States 69th in the world for female representation in government.

Twenty-two nations have at least 30 percent women in their lower houses in national assemblies. Rwanda leads the world with 56 percent of seats in the lower house and 35 percent in the upper house following an election in September.

Sweden is next, with women holding 47 percent of seats in its single-chamber parliament. Cuba is third with 43 percent.

Regional averages show that Scandinavian nations have outpaced much of the rest of the world in female representation:

Europe (excluding Scandinavian nations)
Sub-Saharan Africa
Arab nations

That means women’s share of the House could reach 19 percent, near the 20 percent that political scientist Sue Thomas identified more than a decade ago as a tipping point. In a study of 12 state legislatures Thomas found that when women held at least 1 in 5 state legislative seats, they were more likely to sponsor and push forward women-friendly legislation such as funding for domestic violence shelters and stricter child-support laws.

Marie Wilson, head of the White House Project, a nonpartisan organization in New York that works to elect women to all levels of office, sets that "critical mass" bar higher, at 33 percent. That’s closer to women’s percentages in legislatures in Scandinavian nations, which have typically led the world in working toward gender equality.

The most likely female gains in these elections are in the House of Representatives, where 71 women currently serve.

Four women–including Ohio Rep. Deborah Pryce, the highest ranking Republican woman in Congress–are retiring this year. One other, Democrat Stephanie Tubbs Jones of Ohio, died earlier this year.

Makeup Opportunities

But female candidates have dozens of opportunities to make up for those losses on Nov. 4.

Democrat Marcia Fudge of Ohio won an Oct. 14 special election to run as the Democratic nominee to replace Tubbs Jones, an African American lawyer who had served in Congress for a decade. Fudge, an African American attorney who was mayor of Warrensville Heights, a suburb of Cleveland, is heavily favored to win in the Democratic district, according to Jonathan Parker, political director of EMILY’s List, a political action committee that backs pro-choice Democratic women.

Democrat Chellie Pingree of Maine also has her House race virtually sewn up, he said.

Republican Cynthia Lummis of Wyoming, nominated to succeed retiring GOP Rep. Barbara Cubin, is also a sure bet this fall.

Four others–Debbie Halvorson of Illinois, Judy Baker of Missouri, Linda Stender of New Jersey and Mary Jo Kilroy of Ohio–are running strong campaigns in open-seat races.

Even though incumbents are notoriously difficult to unseat, a number of women are mounting serious challenges against GOP representatives made vulnerable by souring sentiment toward the party of President Bush. Top competitors include Democrats Christine Jennings of Florida, Kay Barnes in Missouri, Jill Derby and Dina Titus in Nevada, Alice Kryzan in New York, Sam Bennett in Pennsylvania and Darcy Burner in Washington state.

On the Republican side, ex-GOP Rep. Melissa Hart in Pennsylvania wants to reclaim her old seat from Democrat Jason Altmire, who unseated her in 2006.

Premier Female-Female Races

Several premier races feature a female challenger taking on a female incumbent, so they won’t affect gender composition.

In Colorado, Democrat Betsy Markey is taking on Republican Rep. Marilyn Musgrave; in Ohio, Democrat Victoria Wulsin is challenging Republican Rep. Jean Schmidt; in West Virginia, Democrat Anne Barth hopes to oust Republican Rep. Shelley Moore Capito; and in Kansas, pro-choice Republican Lynn Jenkins is running against Democratic Rep. Nancy Boyda.

In an open-seat race in Arizona, Republican Sydney Hay is running a tight race with Democrat Ann Kirkpatrick.

The Senate offers less room for women to expand, with a net gain of at most one seat, which would bring the total number of female senators to 17, or 17 percent.

The favorite female challenger is Democrat Jeanne Shaheen, the former governor of New Hampshire who lost in 2002 against GOP Sen. John Sununu. Her rematch is one of the hottest Senate races in the country.

Three other female senators are up for re-election: Democrat Mary Landrieu of Louisiana and Republicans Susan Collins of Maine and Elizabeth Dole of North Carolina.

Only Dole is considered vulnerable, and she is running against another woman–Democrat Kay Hagan, a state legislator–so that won’t affect gender balance.

Nominations Slump

Seven women were nominated to represent their parties in Senate races, down from the 2006 record of 12, according to data compiled by the Center for American Women and Politics, and 133 women are running House campaigns, slightly fewer than the record 141 female candidates who ran in 2004.

But oddsmakers are favoring these women because so many of them are Democrats, running with the political wind at their backs. Of the 133 female major-party nominees, 96–or 72 percent–are Democrats.

A national "generic ballot" poll of registered voters conducted by Fox News Oct. 8-9 found 44 percent of respondents saying they would vote for their district’s Democratic congressional candidate and 36 percent voting for the local Republican. The margin of error was 3 percent.

Additionally, Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama’s mobilization of hordes of new voters will benefit female candidates, said Ilana Goldman, president of the Women’s Campaign Forum, a group in Washington, D.C., that trains women to run for elected office.

The year’s political agenda also favors women, said Claire Giesen, executive director of the National Women’s Political Caucus, a political action committee in Washington, D.C., that backs pro-choice women.

Women rate the economy their top electoral concern and will be motivated to vote in especially high numbers in the midst of the global financial crisis, she said. Two subordinate issues–equal pay and violence against women–have also gotten more air time than usual in the presidential election campaign, which could further drive up female turnout, she said.

In 1992, known as the "Year of the Women," women picked up 19 House and three Senate seats to amass 47 seats in the House and seven seats in the Senate. Victories were spurred in part by voter outrage over Senate hearings of sex-harassment charges against Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. In every election since then, women have made single-digit gains, peaking in 2004 when they picked up eight seats.

Heading into this year’s election, the gender gap favors Democrats ranges from 4 to 11 percentage points, according to a recent analysis by the Center for American Women and Politics. The center will release updated gender-gap polling information every Friday until the election.

Allison Stevens is Washington bureau chief at Women’s eNews.